By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It never has been easy on Mike Carey, so why should the West Virginia University women’s basketball coach find it any different as he heads into today’s Big 12 Conference Tournament at 9:30 p.m. in Dallas after a first-round bye, his sixth-seeded Mountaineers facing No. 3 Oklahoma.
The game can be seen on the Fox Sports Network.
You know how it’s been for Carey. He inherited a program that was a bottom feeder in women’s basketball, built it as best he could but was always banging his head against the nation’s top team in Connecticut.
All that while there were injuries over and over, mostly knees, which would take away key players and keep his team from looking like he expected to when he was building it.
So this year the jump from the Big East to the Big 12 would make life easier?
Hardly. He winds up again in the conference with the most dominant team in women’s basketball, Baylor, and once again his team is decimated by injury, heading into this first tournament game without one of his key players, Jess Harlee, an All-Big 12 defensive choice, who became the third knee injury of the year in the final regular-season game against Texas.
“She tore her ACL and her MCL trying to save a ball from going out of bounds,” Carey said after getting the report from the medical team. “No contact, no nothing. Just turned it. It was at the far end. We saw it and there was no doubt in my mind what had happened. Needless to say, she’s out for the year.”
It’s a key loss in a lot of ways.
“We’ll miss her leadership. Someone else has to pick up that role,” Carey said.
Harlee was being used off the bench to provide instant energy. Now that’s gone, so Carey has to find another approach.
“Everyone has injuries and you say, ‘Man, that’s a shame,’ but when it affects you directly, it really is a shame,” he said.
His problem is that he really hasn’t had time to prepare for playing without Harlee.
“We can talk about it all we want, but we have to get on the floor. You don’t have a lot of time to make adjustments,” Carey said. “We couldn’t practice Wednesday, and by the time we got out of practice on Thursday we only had an hour on the floor.”
And it’s on the floor where the work must be done.
“When Jess went down we put different people in at the 4 and tried to run some plays, and we didn’t have any ball movement. We ran four or five plays and oh, that was a mess. I shouldn’t have tried that. That was not good,” Carey said.
“The problem is we haven’t had time to correct that. It is what it is. We have to probably not make so many adjustments … just play people in their positions and try to get away with that.”
In Oklahoma his team meets a solid outfit that was ranked much of the year and finished 21-9 with an 11-7 league record compared with WVU’s 17-12 and 9-9 marks.
The two teams split their games, Oklahoma winning on its home court, 71-68, and WVU winning at the Coliseum, 82-63. Taylor Palmer scored 30 for WVU in the loss while Christal Caldwell, the team’s leading scorer for the year and freshly named to the All-Big East first team, led the victory with 24 points.
The Sooners are led by Aaryn Ellenberg, the conference’s third top scorer with 19.0 points a game.
“Aaryn Ellenberg is as good as anyone in the league and can score in bunches. We have to try to keep the ball out of her hands. We can’t let her go off,” Carey said.
One problem Carey has to deal with is fatigue. The Mountaineers are making their fourth trip to Texas in the past month and second this week, a week in which they have traveled roughly 4,161 miles.
Carey will not let his team use that or the injury to Harlee as an excuse.
“It’s tournament time. You have to step up. There is no tomorrow now. We have to step up and play,” Carey said.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.